Swedish PM, media rally behind journalists facing death threats

Stockholm, Sweden - Sweden's prime minister on Sunday appealed for calm following an Al-Qaeda death warrant on two journalists for a cartoon portraying the Prophet Mohammed as a dog and threats to attack top Swedish firms.

Cartoonist Lars Vilks said he could die any time as he was getting old after Al-Qaeda extremists in Iraq offered up to 150,000 dollars (100,000 euros) to anyone who slit his throat and also to kill journalist Ulf Johansson for publishing the caricature.

"We must not give in," Vilks was quoted as saying in the Dagens Nyheter daily which republished the cartoon in small format on Sunday.

"I'm starting to grow old. I could die at any time -- it's not a catastrophe," he said.

Sweden's Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt on Sunday sought to defuse tensions and urged "reflection" after talks with local Islamic leaders.

"We are appealing for calm, we are appealing for reflection, we reject these calls to violence and we reject any attempts to aggravate the situation," the conservative leader told the domestic TT news agency.

He underscored Sweden's commitment to freedom of speech and expression -- echoing the local media on Sunday which solidly backed the two embattled journalists.

A group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq, otherwise known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, also put 50,000 dollars on the head of Johansson, editor in chief of the Nerikes Allehanda newspaper which published the caricature.

The group has threatened to strike at top Swedish firms such as telecom major Ericsson, truckmaker Scania, car firm Volvo, furniture company IKEA and Electrolux, which manufactures white goods, if the country's "crusaders" did not offer an apology.

Swedish media condemned the threats, issued through the Internet on Saturday in the form of a statement in the name of the group's purported leader, Sheikh Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

"We live in a country where freedom of expression is not dictated by fundamentalists, nor by governments," wrote Dagens Nyheter chief editor Thorbjoern Larsson in an editorial.

"Dagens Nyheter has already published the cartoon. To me, publishing it was the obvious thing to do."

The cartoon featuring the Prophet Mohammed's head on a dog's body was originally published in Nerikes Allehanda on August 18 and immediately provoked protests by Muslims in the western town of Oerebro, where the paper is based.

Islam considers idolatry blasphemous and the depiction of Mohammed in any pictorial form is strictly forbidden.

Cartoons of Mohammed wearing a turban shaped like a bomb sparked violent protests by Muslims around the world after they were published in Denmark's biggest daily more than a year ago.

Danish trade and business interests in Muslim countries were also harmed.

But the Svenska Dagbladet daily urged Swedes to defend their right to free speech.

"Freedom of expression is not a privilege for the media companies and journalists but a guarantee that citizens can have different impressions, numerous sources of information and inspiration as well as the possibility to draw their own conclusions."

Vilks was in Germany on the weekend where he heads an art association, but was reported to be returning to Sweden on Monday. He has reportedly received police protection and is discussing his security options with the authorities.

Telecom equipment giant Ericsson said it had ordered its operations in the Middle East to keep a "low profile" in the wake of the threat.

"We decided yesterday to take down our company flag in the Middle East to reduce our visibility," company spokeswoman Aase Lindskog told AFP.

"We take the threat very seriously. We have thousands of employees in this region. We remind them that the general security precaution advises and recommends a low profile, not to wear the T-shirt of the company, etcetera."

Egypt, Iran and Pakistan have lodged formal protests with the Swedish government and religious leaders in Afghanistan have condemned the cartoon.